The Desert Explorers are a refined and intelligent group. Interests vary and most of us are bookworms to some extent. This section contains book reviews as well as places to find and enjoy books related to the desert and our environment. Happy reading!
Postcards from Mecca
Here’s a recent arrival to the Stoll bookshelf: Postcards from Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves 1916-1936. Edited by Ann Japenga and Warner V. Graves III, published 2019 by the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association, Tales of the Mojave Road Number 31, available from Amazon or from the MDHC website for $20.00 plus tax and shipping.
From the title and jacket blurb, you might think this book is about Susie Keef Smith, former postmistress of Mecca, California, who, with her cousin Lula Mae (Johnson) Graves, explored the desert around Mecca taking photographs in the 1920s and 1930s. And we do get some snips of information about Susie’s unhappy childhood and Lula Mae’s as well, just enough to keep the narrative moving through the years. Far more satisfying, however, are the photos themselves which eloquently speak of early
days among the palms, cholla and chuckwallas. Those of us DEers who’ve spent time at Corn Springs, for example, will happily recognize the vegetation and petroglyphs Susie photgraphed there. This book provides a unique glimpse of two young women in the 1930s enjoying true freedom while wandering the California desert alone, camping and exploring as the whim drove them, meeting prospectors and surveyors, peering into mine shafts and tunnels, catching horned toads, riding burros and driving a Model T. How many girls in this day of “liberation” would dare hope for such experiences!
But this is not the only entertaining story told in the book. Be sure to read Ron May’s tale in Chapter Four of how he rescued Susie’s photos from the dumpster behind the San Diego County Public Administrator’s offices in 1988. I have had the pleasure of knowing Ron as an archaeologist for over 30 years and I laughed long and hard at the mental image of this man, who at the time was quite large, jumping in and landing “amidst stacks of rotting food and smeared newspapers” to salvage photos, correspondence and even paintings from the “sticky mess.” Thank heaven he did it – otherwise we would have lost some bona fide desert treasures. And thank goodness Chris Ervin added the 1954 Norton Allen maps for orientation (though I wished they had been inserted closer to the front instead of buried on pg. 158). A book written by SEVEN authors can make for a rather disjointed read but
the photos shine throughout this classic and make the
journey worthwhile. ~ Anne Stoll
Women in the Sand
Review by Anne Stoll
We watched The Women in the Sand as promised this Thanksgiving after dinner, sipping champagne in our jammies. One of our number fell asleep but I watched the full 73 minutes and although saddened by the subject, I enjoyed it. Yeah, it’s a little long perhaps, some rough editing here and there and could use a stronger focus, but I came away thinking that this is a very important film. It documents a sad state of affairs and the truly bitter passing of an entire branch of California desert natives. Today only a very few still hang on by their toenails, and not for long. As the women themselves say, the others of their tribe who remain, who live in Bishop, are URBAN Indians. Through narration and historic photos, this film documents the modern history of the Timbisha Shoshone people of Death Valley. The sad tale is marked by years of perhaps innocent misunderstandings, classic bureaucratic bungling, and most appallingly, clear episodes of malicious persecution of the Timbisha by the agencies whose job was to help them. I’ll admit I suffer from empathy fatigue a lot these days, but in this case, the hard facts don’t overwhelm the story these brave women seem happy to tell and the narrative is not always depressing. Several scenes depict happiness and satisfaction, such as the pinyon harvest. Local scholars Ken Lengner and Emmet Harder add plenty of color and generally the cinematography is splendid, showing Death Valley at its beautiful best. We even make a short visit to “Poo-A-Bah” (Tecopa) and there’s a nod to Shoshone’s famous native author, the late George Ross. But we always return to the two central figures, Maddy and Pauline Esteves, the epitome of strong women in every sense and yet both are very fragile too. The final scenes end the film in a cloud of ambiguity – will they ever reconcile their differences? It would seem the desert “sands” we all stand in may be running out.
Zzyzx and the Last Shaman of the Desert Disillusion, Damage and Evangelism
Authored by C.E. Campbell
Book review by Anne Stoll
Anne wrote this article for our DE newsletter and also submitted it to the Mojave Road Report newsletter. They’re going to run it too, so don’t think you’re losing your grip if you see it there as well and have a little deja vú episode...
Zzyzx and the Last Shaman of the Desert. Disillusion, Damage and Evangelism.
Book review by Anne Stoll
Hot off the presses! Here’s a 199-page paperback about Curtis Howe Springer that was just released by author C. E. “Chuck” Campbell, copyright 2017, Green Street Publications, P.O. Box 953, Sunset Beach, CA 90742. I got my copy by sending a check for $26.00 to Dr. C. E. Campbell, 7031 Candlelight Circle, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. The price included shipping. It came promptly and in fine condition.
As to the contents, let me say up front that, however you feel about “Doc” Curtis Howe Springer and his spectacular rise and fall, this is one book you will want to add to your collection of desert titles. Although it is not an easy read, this work fills in several important and long-missing pieces of the history of Zzyzx Mineral Springs. Campbell writes
with the authority of a man who knows his history and was on the scene at the time.
Turns out, for some of the Zzyzx story anyway, I was there too, as no doubt were other Desert Explorers. Thus the subject matter is bound to resonate with this group. I earned an M.A. in 1984 from Cal. State Fullerton in archaeology as the result of graduate work I did there. I designed and created the displays on the history and prehistory of Soda Springs still on view in the main room (see Campbell’s book, page 36). After graduation, I stayed in touch with the folks at the Desert Studies Center – Rob Fulton and Alan Romspert were especially good friends – and in 1994, at the request of then Director of the Desert Studies Consortium, Gerry Sherba, I wrote the book Zzyzx: History of An Oasis – still in print, I think.
I did a lot of research for that book but I’ll be the first to admit there were parts of the Zzyzx story, particularly concerning Curtis Springer, that always eluded me. What was the truth about his past? How many wives and children did he really have? Did his son really die in a hunting accident at Zzyzx? Etc., etc. I always believed that Dennis Casebier was planning to write the definitive story of Curtis Springer, but as Campbell points out (p. 157), this publication has not materialized. And so I applaud C. E. Campbell for taking the job on and answering these and many other questions about Springer’s past. In addition, there are many pages of transcribed radio programs that bring “the voice” of Curtis Springer to the story, an essential element for anyone hoping to understand the man. But the crème-de-la-crème is the amazing Chapter Six, entitled “Undercover … and More.” Replete with period Kodak color photos, Campbell tells his own story of his undercover work in Los Angeles and his visit to Zzyzx in June, 1969 with his wife, young sons, and hidden camera. In my opinion Chapter Six is the highlight of the book.
But – sorry, I have to add this -- if this author were to ask for my advice, I would tell him to cease all sales immediately with instructions for buyers to wait for the second, revised edition. Everyone expects a few typos here and there, but if Masters
Shumway and Kemp actually did any editing of this book, they should resign their commissions. The errors, misspellings, omissions, grammatical problems and difficult overall organization of this work suggest a rush-to-publish that detracts seriously from the story. You cannot fairly criticize a man for writing an exposé that is “full of misspellings and grammatical errors” (p. 152) if you aren’t absolutely scrupulous in your own writing. It undermines your credibility. Some of Campbell’s misusages I found hilarious, such as, “Also discovered at the Soda Springs site were the ruminants of a portion of the old railroad bed…” (p.50) and his discussion of “… the medley of preparations that Curtis Springer hoisted upon unsuspecting listeners…” (p. 113).
Bloopers aside, this book does call forth some marvelous ghosts of the Mojave in a remarkable way. Does it answer the last, great question about Curtis Howe Springer – did he know what he was doing? Did Springer really understand that he was endangering some truly sick people with his bogus products? No, in my opinion, that question is not answered in this book and likely never will be. The Springer story is fascinating to me because of the gray area between good and evil it illuminates. But we can leave that conversation for the next edition. ~ Anne
The Silence and The Sun (Second Edition) by Joe de Kehoe 340pp
By Neal Johns, Chairman Emeritus, Desert Explorers
The Silence and The Sun covers the history of over 4,000 square miles of the East Mojave Desert with an emphasis on the people that lived there and their interactions with the rugged environment they lived in and changed. Joe has another winner; the First Edi- tion was outstanding for what it covered and now the Second Edition has added about 60 pages of mostly new material with a few minor corrections.
One of my first excursions into the East Mojave in the 1970’s was to drive over the Skeleton Pass Road. How could anyone resist a name like that? This was followed by many hundreds of miles of driving in the East Mojave and having no idea of the history around me until I began to read many of the desert history books. With the publication of this book, anyone like me will be saved from that fate. It is the best introduction to the history of an area I have seen.
The history of the Skeleton Pass Road is just one of the many things covered. The new material includes a great chapter on the Old Woman Meteorite and how it was taken from the two prospectors that found it, the Bagdad airfield, the “Cornfield Meet” – (Railroad slang for a collision) – between a train and a Army tank and other new added chapters.
Abandoned shacks, now falling down have a history and the broken dreams or successes of their long-gone owners are told here. Directions and GPS coordinates are given for explorers along with many old maps that show what once was. Above all, this is the story of the people that lived and worked in mines, on the railroad, and on or around Route 66. Imagine being a first grader and having to walk six and one half miles (one way!) to school, five days a week, or living in a tent while starting a gar- age on the new Route 66.
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in any phase of the desert. No dull history tome, this book comes alive with the people that made the desert their home and their accomplishments.
Kenneth Brown opens his book like so many desert writers before him, with a rapturous description of an unnamed canyon in Canyonlands, running through the colors of the rainbow and his repertoire of synonyms for "dry" and "rocky." Ho hum. But the book improves considerably from there, exploring the geology, biology, and history of the area in enough detail to be interesting but not so much as to be daunting. He divides the area into quarters, explores the geology and life forms of specific locales at each of the four points of the compass and then returns to the center, managing within this structure to unfold a chronological account of the area's human history as well.
Mr. Harry Crosby's beautiful book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California is available now from the Mojave River Valley Museum. This outstanding coffee-table-quality book had been out of print for several years before being revised and republished in 1997. Original editions sell for more than $100 per copy – when you can find them. This new revised edition contains new color plates and is truly a delight. The dustcover has this to say: "This full-color account, revised and expanded from the orignal edition, depicts the author's discovery and documentation of a world-class archaeological region in the remote central Baja California. The paintings were unveiled to the modern world in the 1960s by adventure writer Erle Stanley Gardner in conjunction with a comprehensive study by Dr. Clement Meighan of UCLA. These Great Murals, whose origins remain mysterious to this day, rank with those of southern France, northern Spain, northwest Africa, and outback Australia."
Our own Bill Mann, of Barstow Museum fame, has published his new book, Guide to 50 Interesting and Mysterious Sites in the Mojave. In 8-1/2" x 11" format, this 90-page book contains 139 color photographs of the some of the Mojave Desert's most interesting and mysterious sites. The book includes detailed travel directions for each site. All sites are cross-referenced to the DeLorme Atlas & Gazeteer with GPS coordinates. Don't miss this wonderful book by "one of our own." A great buy for just $20.00 per copy.
Windshield Adventuring sounds like a good phrase to me! Too bad Barstow Mojave River Valley Museum members Russell and Kathlynn Spencer invented it. They even write books using that title. Tired of sitting around weekends when no one else is going out to see the sights? Have we got a deal for you! The Spencer’s have traveled extensively alone in a stock Cherokee and written guidebooks to the exciting places found so we can share with them. Sounds kind of touchy feely doesn't it? Guess I am getting old, and it shows in my writing. Living with Marian will do that to a man, Ha!